Every now and again, and often most unexpectedly, I have a conversation with a person that changes my perspective on things and alters my ways of doing things. Recently, when I phoned the professor who taught me property law to ask a question about, well, property law, this magical side conversation happened.
The legal question is only sort of solved, but more intriguing was a book she recommended me: “The slow professor”, by Maggie Berg and Barbara K Seeber, challenge the culture of speed in the academy.
A colleague of mine, Prof Klaus Beiter, have had similar conversations with me in the past, but for some reason, I have not heard it. Or perhaps the conversations that he had with me before enabled me to listen to it this time.
Either way, I have never felt so seen reading a book. I might have actually screamed “Yes! Yes! Yes!” more times than Sally, but more sincere.
Finding pleasure in academia is a great deal of the book is about. Because we, or I at least, have almost lost the joy of being an academic.
Experiencing first had the effect of stress on the health of fellow academics have also been in the front of my mind the past few years, months and weeks.
Admittedly, when my dad, in some of his dementia moments, became so worked up because of “the students (as clients) filling his room” and at times having an urgency to go to yet another meeting (“you will see what it is about when we get there, just make sure that we are on time”), did make me ask reflective questions about the impact this job has on my health and sanity.
And where I often thought there is something wrong with me, the book indicates that it is not (only) me; it is the system.
”I want a cozy job at the university”
And this might surprise non-academics. I have heard many-a-time that people practising in “the real world” is contemplating a job in academia to scale down. I imagine such people envision academics as people with loads of free time to sit and smoke a pipe in a Parisian-type café, paging through a newspaper and contemplating the reason for our existence.
Well, the one or two people I know about who did that was shocked that that is not how it works in academia, and at least one went back to practice because at least their franticness is adequately compensated.
An advocate friend almost choked on his Johny Walker Blue when I told him what professors earn.
(As a little beside, my dad always took umbrage at the Afrikaans word “verdien” as in “hoeveel geld verdien jy?”. Directly translated it would be: how much money do you deserve (earn)? He felt renumeration rarely compensate deserve.)
Talking about this may seem self-indulgent, especially in a country with high unemployment (at least I have a job) with a decent enough salary and job security. I do recognise that. But I don’t think it distracts from the valid concerns many people have in academia about the rise of the corporate university, and the decline of wonder, curiosity, dialogue and community, and the impact this has on democracy itself.
The numbers paint an anxious picture
The book cites (amongst others) a study by the Canadian Association of University Teachers on occupational stress, measuring the impact of stress on psychological and physical health. What did it find? 22,1% experienced physical health symptoms because of stress, 23,5% psychological, and 21,8% of faculty were on stress-related medication. Other studies paint bleaker pictures. Covid amplified the existing problems.
A study from MIT showed that 78% of university faculty reported that “no matter how hard I work, I can’t get everything done”. The percentage for CEOs? 48%. 62% of faculty stated that they feel physically or emotionally drained at the end of the day. CEOs? 55%.
Personality types might account for some of it, yes. Comically, when we had to do a personality test a few years ago in the faculty, it showed a predominance for “blue-red” people. Introverts. Perfectionists. Leave-me-alone types.
But comics and perfectionism aside, the book asks: does the current university system facilitate coping? And with coping, it does don’t mean “when you are so overstressed and depleted, we offer mindfulness classes on Wednesday during the lunch hour”.
Apart from stress being bad on the individual, stress also translates into other areas of the university. A stressed lecturer walking into a class can hardly connect with the students (already a challenge with larger classes, and now with Covid, with static icons on screens).
Interesting, in this regard, the authors cautions against an online mode of teaching (this was before Covid), something that I feel somewhat uncertain of. However, their argument against online teaching lies in the constant interruptions that being online brings (“self-induced ADD”) that interferes with the ability to pay attention to deeper understanding.
Understanding and creating new knowledge requires times of pausing. For this, they quote Einstein: “creativity is the product of ‘wasted’ time”. As the saying goes: less is more.
There are a few suggestions that they make on who to make time for thinking. But it is the conclusion in that chapter that resonated with me: rushing things, not allowing space to think, “undermines the democratic potential of the university, which is to encourage people ‘to think, to engage critically, to make judgements, to assume responsibility for what it means to know something, and to understand the consequences of such knowledge for the world at large”.
Amen to that.
When flexibility becomes a noose
One perception about academia that is equally bound with time is the concept of flexibility. I grew up in an academic home where a particularly dangerous example was set. My dad had a nervous breakdown at 35, and flexibility meant working weekends, evening, holidays because the work is just never done. He passed earlier this year with still unfinished work on his hard drive.
(In my personal set up flexibility is not an option: I have strict boundaries about working after 5 pm and on weekends, as I take time to spend with my family. But flexibility also seems to imply that one will be available at any time, and what I am guilty of from time to time: working during holidays, because things. need. to. get. done.)
Teaching with pleasure, doing research to understand
I found invigorating the book’s call for “pedagogy and pleasure”, which is a call to bring back the joy in teaching. Every year I tell myself I will be a carpe-diem kind of lecturer, and every year I begrudgingly walk with my head down, wondering why I am such a dismal failure at this part of the job.
Also, in this regard, they make suggestions. Nervous teaching? Acknowledge it, voice it, but don’t get too caught up in it. Bring in the joy of humour and laughter. Check-in with the students, listening to their concerns. While I think I do many of these things (I laugh at my jokes, they are funny), I did find some inspiration in the joyfulness that teaching can bring.
Probably the most exciting suggestion is narrating the curriculum: writing a story with your course because the way that we humans construct knowledge is by telling stories.
The search for knowledge
On the research front, they advocate, amongst other things, for publication that is not only aimed at communicating “new findings” or proposing “new theories” but also to revisit what we already know to deepen our understanding. To rethink what we deem to be “knowledge”. And to accept that sometimes these things take time. And while I am occasionally guilty of wondering whether this is secretly an excuse for procrastination (“the article is in my top left drawer”), seeing it this way provides me relief. This kind made me open the drawer and revisiting some of my half-written pearls of wisdom.
Doing research and publishing should not only be about number crunching and ticking boxes. Production is then replaced with contemplation, conversation, which will inevitably lead to something being produced.
This production will take place with the acknowledgement of the natural rhythms of production and rest, where rest is not labelled as unproductive but rather viewed as part of the process. The focus is then on the process instead of on the product.
So the main KPI under “research” should be: did you make time to think, and did you think?” This, of course, also links with one of my favourite philosophers, Martha Nussbaum’s warning that the corporatisation of higher education will lead to the production of machines, “rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticise tradition, and understand the significance of another person’s sufferings and achievements”. Also, as far as research is concerned do the authors offer wonderful ways of slowing down.
It takes a village
Perhaps the chapter that I needed most was the one on collegiality and community—finding social support by talking openly and honestly with your colleagues about your work and your struggles.
My observation in academia in South Africa is that the NRF rating system that requires you to be “the expert in your field” for higher ratings sometimes does not open up for collegiality and collaboration. Some guard their research jealously to ensure that they remain the subject expert. This becomes most evident when reviewers review articles written on “their” fields of expertise and then turn them into reviewer #2. Instead of giving helpful comments and suggestions, attention is diverted to what you should have written, with a “don’t forget to cite the seminal work of Prof/Dr XXX”. Citations matter for grants and promotions.
Knowledge is, in my worldview, something that should be shared, that multiplies when it is being shared, and that seeks to be heard and tested.
In a fascinating webinar this week, colleague Klaus argued that we should take back email as a tool to share ideas, to have conversations, rather than tools only to instruct, to give out work.
Of course, the “tea room” plays an integral part in cultivating community. But I have also found constructive other ways during Covid to connect with colleagues where we could share our joys and struggles during Covid. We vented (not whined) because in the mess of it all, with children sitting at homeschooling online, with that underlying simmering of grief and fears that the pandemic brings, it is beneficial to be able to vent somewhere and to realise that we are indeed just human. That we only have only so much to give academia. And that it is ok not to be ok, and to rest. Also: during difficult times this year, I have received some really valuable encouragement from colleagues in the process, and I could do the same in the moments that they needed it.
The conversation that I had with my professor, after a slight venting session, shows how one can get some precious advice in the process. I have started implementing some of the recommendations, and it already brought back some joy in my job.
So, what would a slow professor constitution include?
Klaus paid a fitting tribute to our dean Prof Stephen de la Harpe, who recently passed due to Covid complications. A dean who understood the resistance to the increased corporatisation and bureaucratisation of the university. That made me wonder: what would an ideal faculty look like?
I am not sure yet. But I think certain principles are necessary to alleviate the stress of the job, to re-humanise education and to resist the corporate university in the ways that we can. The slow food asked us to slow down, to be critical of the standardisation of everything. To take back academic life, to find new ways of determining “efficiency”.
In the slow professor’s dream world, the power in the university will not be in the hands of faculty managers – it will lie with the faculties, where the focus will be on pedagogical and intellectual concerns instead of (only) economic justifications. Where carefully thinking and deliberating takes precedence over speed. Where there is time to think, to inquire, to be curious, to leave things unresolved because sometimes things need time to marinate. To do something on purpose.
A love of knowledge, of contemplating, of doing the action of thinking, is ultimately why I choose a career in academia. And I am starting to reclaim space to do just that.
A lot of the information used here comes from the book Slow Professor. I did not necessarily reference the page numbers. Get your hand on the book. It is an accessible read, and it leads you down the rabbit hole of references to great works on the topic.